Madrid left with list of 'what ifs' after Clasico

Posted by Nicholas Rigg



Carlo Ancelotti was left with a list of what ifs after suffering a 2-1 defeat against Barcelona in his first Clasico as Real Madrid manager.

Goals from Neymar and Alexis Sanchez gave Barca all three points at the Camp Nou as the Catalans stretched their lead over their old foes in La Liga to five points. Jese Rodriguez scored a consolation in stoppage time but it was not enough to extend Madrid's unbeaten run in Clasico contests to six matches.

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It was not a classic Clasico, far from it. The intensity, from both sides, was not up to the standards of recent seasons. Maybe that was down to both having new managers, maybe it was down to the new makeup of the personnel on show. Maybe recent head-to-heads have spoiled us somewhat -- they can't always be classics.

But Madrid will leave the Camp Nou frustrated and in more ways than one.

The list of what ifs, from Madrid's point of view, is long. What if Cristiano Ronaldo was awarded a penalty with Barca leading 1-0? What if Ancelotti opted against playing Sergio Ramos as an extra holding midfielder? What if Isco played? What if Gareth Bale was used as an impact player from the bench? What if Ronaldo played in his preferred position wide on the left rather than being used, for the most part, as the lead man? What if Karim Benzema's thunderbolt dipped an inch lower and did not strike the crossbar? What if Alvaro Morata played?

The major talking point, and major turning point, came with Los Blancos trailing 1-0. Angel di Maria sent Ronaldo through on goal and Javier Mascherano, picked alongside Gerard Pique in the Barca defence, sent the Portuguese tumbling inside the box. It looked a clear-cut penalty but the officials didn't budge and Ronaldo fumed. His rant continued after Barca struck a delightful second, pointing to the penalty area and receiving a yellow card for his protests. They say you can usually judge a situation on a player's reaction and this was a case in point.

While the match was Ancelotti's first in charge in a Clasico the situation could only help cast your mind back to Jose Mourinho's three years in charge. One can only imagine what his reaction would have been. A theatrical post-match interview, if indeed he was actually to give one, would have been the outcome. Referees. Catalonia and UNICEF -- beware. Ancelotti's reaction, typically, was calmer, but the outcome was still the same -- Madrid should have had a penalty. At worst it was a cynical challenge by Mascherano, at best it was clumsy. Either way the spot should have been pointed to. Ronaldo probably would have scored, the match would have been level and the visitors would have held the momentum.

Madrid called desperately for a penalty in the first half, too, but the referee got that one right. It was probably their best chance of a poor first half as Ronaldo got away on the left and lashed the ball into a dangerous area on the edge of the 6-yard box. Sami Khedira, of all people, came racing in and saw his shot well saved by Victor Valdes but the ball diverted into the path of Adriano and it seemed to touch his hand. There was little Barca's left-back could do, however, with the momentum carrying him toward the ball. To point to the spot on that occasion would have been harsh.

Madrid could look to a bit of bad luck on a few occasions. Benzema struck a wonderful shot that left Valdes stranded but came crashing back off the bar, while the Barca goalkeeper produced a brilliant save to deny Ronaldo what would have been a ninth goal in seven Clasicos with a brilliant save to divert his powerful shot over the bar. Tata Martino's men carved out good chances of their own and Madrid had Diego Lopez to thank for a superb save of his own to deny Neymar a second.

It was not all bad luck and misfortune for Madrid, though. Ancelotti's starting lineup was questionable to say the least. Madrid were poor in the first half and that was largely down to the cards the Italian opted to deal with in the opening 15 minutes. A safety-first approach.

Ramos was given a role holding the midfield but he failed to add more steel to Madrid's defence or complement the attack, he was caught in between not really doing a whole lot. A huge confidence boost to Asier Illarramendi, then, who was left on the bench. Ramos' role only acted to confuse things in the middle, something highlighted with Barca's opener. He failed to track Iniesta sufficiently and that sucked Dani Carvajal inside, leaving Neymar free to tuck home and make it 1-0. In turn it weakened the back four, too. Ramos' linking with Raphael Varane was a highlight of last season, especially in Clasico matches.

The decision to start Gareth Bale also proved to be a bad one with the Welshman proving pretty ineffective throughout. Bale is not fully fit yet but it was no surprise to see him start on the biggest stage. Florentino Perez wants his big names playing in the big games and Bale was always going to be a good shout to start because of that. He struggled in Madrid's rotating front three, however, and even when he had Adriano on a yellow card he did not attack the full-back with his pace like he should have.

Bale's start meant a rejigging of the attack but Ronaldo's role as a No. 9 again left the Portuguese frustrated. He was left on his own and struggled to see much of the ball. Only when he was moved out to the left did he do some damage but the constant rotation of him, Bale and di Maria meant that damage, from all three players, was limited. Bizarrely, even Bale got a run-out in the No. 9 role. Benzema's spot on the bench may not have been wholly surprising given his recent form but the dropping of Alvaro Morata from the squad, a player high on confidence, was.

Illarramendi and Benzema were introduced in the second half and if Ancelotti had opted to go with the Madrid side that finished the match from the start Los Blancos may have enjoyed better fortunes. The match was more open and, as a result, Madrid looked more of a threat and capable of at least matching their hosts. From his starting selection it seemed as though the Italian opted for safety first and didn't really have the belief that his regular starting lineup, the more attacking one, could get a result at the Camp Nou. They could.

In contrast to Bale, Neymar had a superb first appearance in a Clasico and left the pitch to a standing ovation. A well-taken goal to open the scoring and a nice assist for a superb goal for Sanchez. Very much a victory for the summer signings on that front too, for one game at least. Madridistas are still awaiting a full-fit Bale. Jese's goal was a nice consolation, not in the context of the game but for the Madrid youngster on a personal level. Morata has been flying but that goal will give his fellow Spain U21 team mate a nice shot in the arm for his career at the Bernabeu.

Madrid will point to the penalty decision as a big turning point and rightly so, but Ancelotti's defensive tactics from the off did not help Madrid's cause. Lessons may well have been learnt. Jose Mourinho suffered an embarrassing 5-0 defeat at the Camp Nou in his first Clasico as Madrid boss and lessons weren't learnt, maybe this will act as a similar tonic for Ancelotti.

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